cover of book

Shifting the Ground: American Women Writers' Revisions of Nature, Gender, and Race
by Rachel Stein
University of Virginia Press, 1997
Cloth: 978-0-8139-1741-2
Library of Congress Classification PS147.S74 1997
Dewey Decimal Classification 810.99287

In Shifting the Ground, Rachel Stein adds a feminist slant to the field of ecocriticism. Americans have historically defined themselves in terms of their conquest of "virgin land." Unfortunately, this identification has often proved disastrous to groups such as women, Native Americans, and African Americans, who were regarded as nature incarnate, part of the ground that must be mastered in the name of nation.

From a perspective of ecofeminist theory, Stein suggests that selected writings by Emily Dickinson, Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, and Leslie Marmon Silko cannily revise intersections between American conceptions of nature and problematic formulations of gender and race. Writing from diverse social positions, each author examines a historical instance of this colonial conjunction: Dickinson grapples with the forces of Victorian Puritanism; Hurston interrogates Afro-Caribbean and African-American women's abuse as "beasts of burden"; Walker examines black mothers' struggles in the Jim Crow South as the legacy of their history as slave "chattel"; and Silko treats social ills of Native Americans as stemming from their objectification by white settlers.

In order to alleviate these oppressive conditions, Stein argues, each writer incorporates an alternative conception of nature from popular and indigenous traditions such as sentimentalism, Voodoo, African-American animism, and Laguna Pueblo story cycles. By reinterpreting nature, they transform their characters from social objects into self-empowered subjects.

Recasting these authors against the backdrop of conquest rhetoric, Stein offers provocative new readings of their texts. Her book paves the way for further development of ecocriticism and ecofeminist theory with regard to American women writers.


"Shifting the Ground examines the ways in which four women writers--Dickinson, Hurston, Walker, and Silko--subvert the destructive American mythos of 'nature's nation' and replace it with alternative visions of egalitarian interrelations between nature, gender, and race. Stein's study is well-informed, cogently written, and intelligent. Shifting the Ground is ecofeminist literary criticism at its best."

--Cheryll Glotfelty, University of Nevada, Reno

The Author

Rachel Stein is Assistant Professor of English at Siena College.
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